April 19, 2017      

The 2017 Automate and ProMat trade shows were an opportunity to check out the latest mobile robots, industrial automation, and materials-handling systems. This semi-annual event is one of the best in North America, and it was literally a who’s who of the automation market. With more than 1,200 vendors exhibiting across both shows, it was difficult to see everything.

Let’s review the most significant new product announcements and demonstrations in Chicago this month. Three technology areas were particularly interesting this year. First, a large number of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) were on display.

Second, many collaborative robots, or cobots, were noteworthy. Finally, there were several new things to see in related technologies such as robotic arms and grippers.

Business Takeaways:

  • Exhibitors at this year’s Automate and ProMat had many new mobile robots, collaborative robots, and materials handling products to display.
  • In addition to established industrial automation suppliers, several startups joined the show. Larger vendors have added cobots to their product lines.
  • Innovations in machine vision, manipulation, and cloud computing will continue to help robotics adoption.

More mobile robots at Automate 2017

Mobile robots were hot again this year, with several new entrants into the market. The market leaders were in attendance, including Aethon, Fetch Robotics, Omron Adept Technologies, and Otto Motors.

Challenging the market leaders were several new products announced this year:

  • A new heavy-payload AMR from Italian robot maker Comau SpA
  • A new 200 kg payload vehicle from Mobile Industrial Robots ApS (MiR)
  • A mobile robotic arm from KUKA AG
  • A mobile tote shuttle from Knapp AG
  • The latest logistics machine from 6 River Systems Inc.

Aethon Inc. demonstrated its new T3 and T3XL mobile robots at the show. The T3XL is capable of moving 1,400 lb., and it includes a 48-in. payload platform along with omni-directional wheels. The TUG robots are capable of picking up and transporting carts throughout a facility.

Pittsburgh-based Aethon built its reputation in the hospital market, but over the past year, it has expanded its reach into manufacturing. The new T3 and T3XL mobile robots expand the Aethon product line to fulfill the needs for industrial applications.

Odense, Denmark-based MiR boasted on social media that it took away more than 900 leads from the show, which is proof of the growing strength of the mobile robot market. MiR demonstrated its new MiR200, a 200 kg AMR, along with an automatic cart-hitching mechanism (see image above).

The auto cart-hitching idea has been used by Aethon for years, and Omron Adept introduced its Cart Transporter at Automate 2015. However, MiR’s product achieves the cart hitching and towing in a unique way.

Omron Adept Technologies Inc. demonstrated its LD100 mobile robots. This is the same offering that Adept Technology brought to market four years ago, but it is now rebranded with the quality Omron brand and supported by the Omron channel. As San Ramon, Calif.-based Omron Adept builds momentum, it will likely become a gorilla in the logistics automation market.

Fetch Robotics brought its latest mobile robots to Automate 2017.

Meet the new Fetch mobile robot family.

Kitchener, Ontario-based OTTO Motors had one of the largest exhibitor spaces at Automate. The Clearpath Robotics Inc. division demonstrated both the OTTO1500 (with a 1,500 kg payload capacity) and the OTTO100 (100 kg) vehicles. The OTTO100 was picking and placing pallets to and from the Otto1500, proving that it’s possible to automate loading and unloading of large payloads.

Fetch Robotics Inc. publicly launched its Fetch 500 and Fetch 1500 a few months ago. San Jose-based Fetch had too little floor space to adequately show the capabilities of its new vehicles. However, its product line has among the most breadth of any mobile robot platform competitor.

Comau's Agile1500 mobile robot

The Comau Agile1500 mobile robot on display in Chicago.

Comau unveiled its Agile1500 for the first time at Automate. As its name implies, this mobile robot is capable of moving 1500 kg, joining other heavy-duty offerings. The Agile1500 will be available for sale later this year.

Siasun's mobile robot includes a cobot arm.

Siasun’s mobile cobot was one of three on display at Automate and ProMat.

Siasun (Shanghai Xin Song Robot Automation Co.) is the largest robot manufacturer in China. Its product line on display included a collaborative arm on a mobile platform.

Two other vendors also showed off cobots mounted on mobile robots — KUKA and IAM Robotics.

AMRs gain traction in warehouses and e-commerce

At ProMat, it was clear that demand for mobile robots is still growing in e-commerce and warehousing.

In the IAM Robotics booth, a mobile six-axis robot used machine vision to identify products on a shelf and effectively complete order picking into a tote. Sewickley, Pa.-based IAM’s system included a station for training robots by cataloging products with the vision system.

Locus Robotics had a mini warehouse in its booth and demonstrated its LocusBots running with the newly introduced Locus Robotics Advanced Navigation (LRAN) software. One strength of the Locus solution is its integration with warehouse management systems (WMS).

Matthews Automation new mobile robot system

Matthews Automation’s new mobile robot system.

The engineers at Locus in Wilmington, Mass., built their products top-down based on their experience in running an actual e-commerce warehouse. This strategy differs from all the robot vendors that created a mobile platform and then went looking for an application. As a result, Locus has a focused approach to this market.

Also on the warehousing side, Matthews Automation Solutions acquired Guidance Automation Ltd. last December. As a result of this synergy, Matthews Automation introduced a new mobile robot as part of its Lightening Pick package. The Matthews AMRs on display at the show uses Guidance Automation controls.

Waltham, Mass.-based 6 River Systems had a small booth with a static model of its new light collaborative picking robot, affectionately known as “Chuck.” Former Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics) engineers started the Waltham, Mass.-based company, so they understand how to solve the problems with automation in the warehouse. 6 River Systems has a small number of pilot customers that are running the robots.

Knapp Shuttle mobile robot on display at Automate 2017.

Knapp Shuttle moves totes between conveyors.

The elusive Knapp Shuttle was spotted moving bins between conveyor systems at the show. Rarely seen in public, the OSR Shuttle isn’t a separate AMR, but rather an integral part of Knapp’s material-handling system.

The new kids on the mobile robot block are SitBack Vehicles in Piscataway, N.J. It had a small booth and no demonstration vehicle because it’s still preparing its product for launch later this year.

Sitback Vehicles is focusing on material-handling applications with a vehicle that looks like a smart cart with a 1,000 kg payload.

Cobots take Chicago

The world of collaborative robots is thriving, judging from the many displays at Automate and ProMat.

Productive Robotics new OB7 cobot

Productive Robotics’ new OB7 cobot has a complaint arm.

Startup Productive Robotics Inc. launched its OB7, a seven-axis, 5 kg payload arm. It includes a simple-to-program software interface that runs on a tablet.

OB7’s “wrist” features an intuitive touch-control interface which immediately puts the robot into compliance mode as you grab it and move it around the work envelope. It can be used to teach the robot paths and locations. Productive Robotics is headquartered near Santa Barbara, Calif.

Comau's newly launched AURO cobot

Comau recently launched its AURA cobot.

Comau also unveiled AURA. The large cobot is capable of safely lifting a 110 kg payload. That’s a large load for a collaborative robot, but AURA is covered with thick foam padding to minimize any bodily damage if there is an impact.

Kawasaki's robot serves ice cream

Ice cream, anyone? Courtesy of Kawasaki Robotics.

The Kawasaki Robotics booth had the largest crowd throughout the day as folks waited in long lines to be served an ice cream cone filled by the duAro dual-arm SCARA system.

Of course, cobot stalwarts Universal Robots A/S and Rethink Robotics Inc. had large booths in the center aisle at this year’s Automate. I think this positioning speaks volumes about how far collaborative robotics has come over the past two years.

Yaskawa Motoman‘s new HC10, a 10 kg cobot, illustrates the trend that nearly every major robot vendor is adding light and heavy collaborative robots to its product line.

The new Flexion N2, 6 axis robot from EPSON

Epson’s Flexion N2 was featured in multiple booths at Automate 2017.

A soft touch and robots in the cloud

The new Flexion N2 arm from Epson Robots is an innovative, folding six-axis design with a very compact work envelope. This new robotic offering will help open new applications and should help position Epson as a player in the non-SCARA market. Multiple integrator booths had the N2.

Soft Robotics brought a compliant gripper to Automate and ProMat 2017.

A compliant gripper from Soft Robotics.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Soft Robotics Inc. showed off its compliant end-of-arm tooling. These soft manipulators are ideal for handling products like fruit and pastries without damage.

In addition, Boston-based Tend.ai presented its new cloud-based robot management platform. This software solution runs enables the remote programming and monitoring of robotic systems.

Programming for the robotics systems is done via the Tend interface on a handheld device or a computer. The code is then translated to the native language of the target robot systems over the Internet. This is an interesting new application leveraging the growth and maturity of cloud-based enterprise IT.

More on Automate 2017 and Mobile Robots:

If the Automate and ProMat shows are any indication, we should expect strong growth in the robotics and material handling markets. Innovation continues, as multiple competitors push the envelope on technology advances and improve the capabilities of automated solutions. See you in two years!